Here’s how he does it. Why it matters. And how the press can stop it — before it’s too late.
Lu Hanessian, MSc
When I first became a television anchor in my twenties, and walked into the hallowed news room to meet the director, it felt a bit like Oz. He made sure I knew the unofficial rule of broadcast news: If it bleeds, it leads.
A chill ran down my spine. The curtain was pulled back. Turned out the wizard was a lab rat pushing levers.
We’re wired for fear. People slow down to look at car crashes on the highway. Threat keeps us vigilant. Conflict keeps us hooked. Certain kinds of stories grab viewers and ratings. These are gripping stories of beating impossible odds. Shocking stories of outrage and injustice. Outlandish stories of greed and deception. Stories of good guys and bad guys. Corruption and redemption. Underdog coming out on top.
And, of course, puppy videos.
In the 2016 presidential election, all of these stories were up for grabs. In every category of interest, producers and writers filled endless cycles with edge-on-the-seat television. No puppy videos. Trump was an underdog, a top dog, a bull dog, a mad dog…
“I like to fight,” Trump he said.
And the media loves conflict.
Trump flipped the cultural script. And the media went with it.
We might think the public was unprepared for what it was about to witness on national television over the next months and years. But, in reality, it had been preparing for years through dopaminergic, upping-the-ante-TV.
In a twist of irony — of life imitating television imitating reality — viewers of The Apprentice were groomed for his dizzying campaign ride and roller coaster presidency. Millions tuned in to the ominous boardroom to hear the two words that became synonymous with failure, rejection and humiliation. His signature — and trademark.
Trump’s opinion became news. Name-calling became news. Gossip became news. “Many people are saying…” became a prefix.
He was allowed to ‘call it in’. Never, in the history of political campaigning, was someone able to phone in an interview to a television show. Trump got a green light. He was given a pass because he became unofficial director of programming for the greatest show on earth. The Trump Show.
Former CBS head Les Moonves said Trump’s campaign was a “circus” full of “bomb throwing”. He grinned as he reasoned, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”. And he egged him on. “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
In 2016, fear and fury was on the ballot.
Back then, we all had the luxury to shake our heads. To chuckle. To snarl. To mute the volume. To howl at protests. To get out our Sharpies and add our poster signs to visual landscape of outrage.
Over the next few years, the media covered our divisions. Played up identity politics. Blurred the boundaries between politics and press. Trump allies and advisors on the network payroll. Both-sides-ism. The press turned up the volume on tribal hostilities. And deepened the rifts.
In 2020, trauma and survival is on the ballot.
In these dark days now, we have entered into territory so surreal and dangerous that it seems silly to talk about those early years when a political candidate was given $1 billion in free air time.
The pandemic has upended American life, lives, and livelihoods. A parallel crisis accompanies it. A nearly 900% increase in calls to the government’s mental health hotline last month sounds the alarm on a nation in deep suffering.
With so much on the line in this country, we must understand the dynamic between the man and the media. So we stay clear, informed, and prepared.
This president’s power is knowing how to hack the media’s nervous system.
It’s what he does best. The media’s nervous system has been reactive, reflexive, hyper vigilant, dysregulated. Their chronic stress state mirrors his own. Reporters and journalists must recognize his strategic tactics, focus not on what he says and how he appears, but on what he does or doesn’t do, as well as their own responses.
His four most common strategic tactics:
1. Rage against the media machine: It’s a ruse.
The President v. the Press is a fictional conflict. ‘Enemy of the people’ is not actually about the media. He loves their attention. And needs them. He rants about negative coverage, and then boasts about his ratings from that coverage.
From the start, he has needed their megaphone to relay his message to the people. And, in keeping with the First Amendment and long-standing political tradition, they need access to him.
It’s not that they are in some kind of private pact with him. It’s more complicated than that.
The media machine is owned. How much room does a television network have to expose corruption of presidential power or deadly inaction in a pandemic… when some of his wealthiest donors and policy influencers are corporate shareholders? Some in the media press on to report inconvenient truths, and stand their ground.
When female reporters ask and hold their ground, he calls it nasty. Disgraceful. He’d prefer Donna Reed. When male reporters try to pin him down to the facts, he calls them wise guys, cutie-pies. He says the press is more “hostile” to him than they were to Lincoln.
He rages. And they translate that rage into column inches, air time, headlines. Reporters and analysts repeat the same words. He’s “unhinged”. “Unraveling”. “Melting down”. The press has covered his temperament, his rants and “rage-tweets”.
His rage has prompted reporting on his mental fitness, lack of empathy, and threat to the country. Or… he’s described as a child, wounded by the press, who he whines are mean to him.
The press framing his anger as a presidential ‘tantrum’ dilutes the gravity of the situation. It’s a dig at his petulance, like he was a hypoglycemic teenager who hasn’t eaten in a few hours. We should be that lucky right now.
They miss the point. He wins the point. This is how he forces them to change the subject, but keeps people tuned to his channel.
Game over. His rage must be called out as a public health threat. Keep the focus on public health and medical experts. His rage must be seen as a grave danger— the stopgap getting in the way of saving lives.
2. Lie, blame, confuse. Repeat: It’s disinformation.
Over the last three years, whenever he wanted to change the news cycle, but keep people focused on him, he would do something unexpected. Suddenly sign an order. Fire someone. Start a rumor. Pick a fight. Hire someone. Kill a regulation. Float a conspiracy. Insult somebody. Change the topic. Tweet. All. Night. Long.
The goal is three-fold. Keep attention away from wrongdoing. Discredit the press so people will doubt their reporting on the wrongdoing. Blame others. And confuse the public to the point of saturation and exhaustion. As long as he can cast doubt on negative stories about him, everything might be fake news.
We all now live in a bot-infested disinformation culture, in which none of us knows for sure what’s ‘fake news’ and whether a source is even human.
Lie, distract, confuse. Repeat.
Back then, he was referring to his show ratings.
Who’s “they”? The press. He has used this fogging tactic on them for decades, tossing out assertions like press grenades. To reveal and reinforce them. To throw reporters off the trail. To make them chase their own tail.
At every turn, the press has tried to change the narrative back to the real story. Now, the media must get out in front of the story. Like taking the wheel from a rogue pilot.
3. Inflates or downplays numbers. It’s lethal now.
In the first weeks of the year, Trump didn’t want the Grand Princess, with 35 sick passengers on board, to dock, because he wanted to keep the numbers down.
Even as the virus picked up speed, he dismissed and downplayed it. To be the country’s cheerleader, he said. So as not to spook the other numbers. The Dow Jones plunged 1700 points in a day, anyway. He told the country just fifteen people tested positive. Twenty-two. Forty. But, like a “miracle”, he said, it would disappear.
Mere weeks later, despite the cataclysmic loss of more than70,000 Americans, he has continued to downplay and dismiss. His son-in-law and he framed 60,000 deaths as a great success story, as the country’s cases top 1 million.
In the last 15 days, the president changed the projected death toll 5 times.
Afterward, the press will fact-check him. Correct him. The story becomes the story of him not telling the real story.
Without a constant eye on context, numbers become an abstraction. Like his inauguration size. His ratings. Returns. Polls. Primaries. Death tolls.
But, what about the abstraction of large-scale loss? As the president and the GOP are driving the country into mass death, and the president and the press argue fact and fiction, we all risk becoming numb to the numbers.
We can’t allow this to happen.
As Eugene Jarecki writes, we need a national death clock.
“… it is time for the establishment of a national “death clock” to measure the cost in human lives of President Trump and his team’s reckless handling of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Numbers represent human beings with grieving widows, families, children. A press that covers American loss in context and at this level can prevent the president from effectively dehumanizing it.
4. Projects and deflects: It’s gaslighting America.
His 2016 campaign tactic was to so wildly rock the boat, everyone would be too busy flailing in the water searching for the oars to navigate the turbulent waters.
He projected. The businessman who paid $25 million to ‘victims’ of Trump’s ‘fraudulent’ university called others “corrupt”. The man who made up countless sources and stories — who impersonated his own fake publicist to brag to media about his client, Mr. Trump — called the press “fake news”. The one who screamed from the presidential bully pulpit called others out for being “nasty”. Still does.
It’s what he does best. From the beginning, he flooded the media ecosystem. One breaking news banner after another. He and the media rode the wave. Access Hollywood to access the White House. (John Barron didn’t even see it coming.)
If Trump was inexperienced at political theater, it didn’t matter. He knew a different kind of theater. The theater of the absurd.
He deflected. He avoided questions. Blamed Obama. He didn’t just violate norms of political etiquette. He turned them into entertainment.
Nobody’s laughing now.
There is nothing remotely amusing about a contagious virus that he allowed to spread across this country— with no grand plan in mind or in sight.
Until now, his projections and deflections were exhaustive efforts to gaslight America. Mueller. Zelensky. His critics, haters, supporters, and die-hard defenders.
He can’t gaslight a virus. He can’t project his inaction on a pandemic. He can’t deflect tens of thousands of preventable deaths.
There is no wishful thinking about this president suddenly guiding a nation through a bottomless grief. This one doesn’t do comfort. He does conflict. He told us.
Now that the stakes have never been higher, the fight is on for the country’s survival. This may be the media’s biggest story and most formidable battle. And, for a president who likes to fight, this is one we cannot afford to lose.